‘If only we could take the politics out’ has become a ubiquitous cry in contemporary political life. This can be seen everywhere, but Barack Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline is a classic instance. It has been decried from all sides as one in which ‘politics’ intruded into a decision that (purportedly) should not have been political. It was sullied by election-year politics–with (for some) the Republicans in Congress forcing Obama’s hand by insisting on a short timeline for his decision, and (for others) Obama playing to his audience on what one Nebraska Republican congressman called ‘the environmental Left’. Which side of this fence you are on determines which spin you give here—but both have the same logic: the decision was determined by ‘politics’ rather than the supposedly objective facts of the case.
This narrative has three specific sorts of characterisations of politics:
1. Politics is a sort of ‘noise’ that intrudes into the ‘normal’ workings of things.
2. Politics, like halitosis, is what the other guy has (here I paraphrase Terry Eagleton).
3. Politics is bad, to be avoided.
I will come back to these assumptions later. For now, we need to interrogate what the term politics or political is taken to refer to. Politics is reduced here to the old-fashioned word ‘politicking’–the petty pursuit of power, for specific individual interests, and the jostling for position to gain the fruits of public office.
As Colin Hay points out in Why We Hate Politics, this account of politics has long roots in a certain sort of cynicism towards politicians. But it has, since the 1970’s, become the dominant account of politics per se. This recently dominant account, however, obscures a much longer history of regarding politics very differently, or at least with much more nuance.
Hay gives an exhaustive list of ways in which we might understand what politics is. But to my mind, they tend to be reducible to two broad rubrics. One is that politics is the space where collective decisions get made. It is thus inherently, in Chantal Mouffe’s terms, ‘agonistic’—about public debate, clashes of interests, visions and values, and the processes by which these conflicts and deliberations produce decisions that shape our individual and collective lives. The other rubric sees politics as about the pursuit of power. But this does not need to be equated with pursuing specific interests; it is frequently regarded as a quest, at times even noble, to use the power that concentrates in political institutions to pursue ‘the good life’, whatever that is taken to mean.
What, then, about the three assumptions above? In my view, all need to be challenged, along the following lines:
1. Politics is ubiquitous. To expect a decision on public policy to be somehow ‘outside politics’ is both naïve and dangerous. However, politics is much more than just a question of who is jockeying for position most effectively. It is about clashes of vision and interest that are embedded in the stakes in any decision – nowhere more obviously than in a decision like on the XL pipeline.
2. We all do politics, all the time. Presenting politics as the other guy’s strategy is itself your political strategy. Nobody watching should be fooled by this rhetorical sleight of hand.
3. Politics is at least potentially good. It is where we can articulate clearly alternative visions of how the world might be organised, and can make explicit the conflicts between differing views and what is at stake in the decisions being made. To gloss over this, to pretend there is consensus where there isn’t, to present a decision as ‘non-political’: this is both itself a profoundly political act and often, especially where the stakes are high (as in oil and environmental politics), a dangerous, anti-democratic one.
So in the case of Keystone XL, what is at stake are two clashing visions of the good life, and the interests embedded in those visions. It is not the case that the pipeline is ‘obviously’ in the interests of either the U.S. or Canada.
The pipeline is in the interests of a Canada or U.S. that is wedded to a vision of a continued future dependence on fossil fuels and the ‘good life’ that such fuels sustain (i.e. low density urban sprawl, ubiquitous car dependence, unrestrained access to that sort of energy, and the power of the oil companies). But that vision, like any, has its downsides, from the obesity crisis to accelerating climate change. These are internal to that vision and the interests associated with it.
But the pipeline it is not in the interests of a U.S. or Canada that wants to wean us off fossil fuels, to pursue a vision of economic and social life around the transition to renewable energy sources, and to wean us off car dependence in favour of ‘liveable cities’ and much lower risks of dangerous climate change, with all its attendant impacts.
Clearly I simplify these two visions radically. But they do capture the essence of the debate about the Keystone XL pipeline, and energy/environmental policy more broadly. To make these choices explicit is to make it clear that politics is intrinsic and necessary to these sorts of decisions.
Obama is caught between these two visions, caught in a partial embrace of both in a fundamentally incoherent way. The real danger is that by attempting to have it both ways, by attempting to depoliticise the issue and avoid conflict, the choices that get made in the end will simply serve existing dominant interests. As many of the commentators on his decision (especially from the side favouring the pipeline) seemed to assume, the pipeline will be approved in the end. But while they presented it as being about ‘common sense’, in fact it is precisely because their visions and interests have not been sufficiently openly discussed in public policy debates. If they were, perhaps the outcome would be less certain. In other words, we need more politics, not less.